As we prepare for the upcoming legislative session, during which education will be a large component of our agenda, I thought it appropriate to return to my wheelhouse and take a deep dive into the essential nature of arts in education.
For those who don’t know, I have spent two decades working in arts nonprofits, and three decades working in theater. I taught in the Performing and Visual Arts (PVA) program at Bates Middle School and Brooklyn Park Middle School. I have seen firsthand the transformative and essential nature of arts integration in education. As we begin the hard work to make our education system competitive not only nationally but globally, I think it is important to return to the basics. Not reading, writing and arithmetic, but music, dance, theater and visual arts.
When I taught for the PVA program, I developed a curriculum called “Cultivating Kindness through Theatre Arts,” which utilized theater games to teach empathy, communication, teambuilding, and critical and analytical thinking. I taught theater the way I wish I’d been taught theater, not as a skill in itself, but as a set of transferable skills that translated to any other field.
Arts must be part of a comprehensive education if we wish to be competitive. During Arts Day last year, I gave an impromptu 20-minute talk on how to effectively advocate for the arts. Because we have all been trained to devalue the arts as a non-essential, luxury item, they are easily stripped from the budget as we look to increase test scores and outcomes. The narrative goes like this: The arts is a narrow, highly competitive field with limited career success. When we buy into this line of thinking, we lose sight of why arts are a foundational discipline, and how a comprehensive arts program increases outcomes, raises graduation rates, and prepares students to learn.
This is not mere conjecture. Multiple studies confirm that the arts prepare students to learn, increase test scores, reduce the impact of stress and trauma, and increase synoptic responses. These studies also confirm that these programs teach students to approach problem-solving from a big picture point of view: to start from the end and work backward, to have a vision of what one wishes to achieve, and to make discoveries and adjustments along the way.
The impact of arts integration doesn’t stop at adolescence either. Arts programs have been shown to reduce violence and recidivism in incarcerated populations and to aid in recovery from traumatic brain injuries and cognitive disorders associated with our senior population.
For tactile learners who are not always as successful in a classroom setting, the alternative learning options afforded by the arts often offer their first taste of success. However, though study after study shows the value of arts in education — and more valuably, arts integration into classroom learning — it is still viewed as a luxury, an elective, and even an after-school activity expected not only to be self-sufficient but also to be wedged into complicated schedules and overburdened resources.
As we look to our early education, we must ensure we expand our early music and visual arts education. As we work to ensure we have adequate behavioral health resources for our at risk middle school population, we need to ensure they have theater and dance programs that will help train them to communicate. As we expand our career readiness training, we need to focus on STEAM, not STEM programs, so we are preparing our young people to think critically, to expand their imagination beyond the confines of the text, and to visualize, communicate, and fully realize their vision, in whatever field they pursue.
One more thought to leave with you, and that is the relationship between arts and science. Both disciplines teach us how to fail, how to recover, and that each failure is informational. They work not in opposition, but in synchronicity. Art and architecture, art and engineering, and dare I say it, art and politics.